Camille thought, She did it on purpose.
Amma was no criminal mastermind, but she was smart enough. She was careful: sucking on each word before she said it like it was a piece of hard candy. She wouldn’t have gone on prying the teeth out of little girls’ mouths, cities and states away from where she’d done it first, if she hadn’t wanted Camille to know. There were easier trophies.
Besides, Lily Burke hadn’t been a biter. The pulled teeth were a symbol that hadn’t gotten separated from what it even meant—the violation of Adora’s perfect, lotion- and cream-smoothed skin, the liberty even Amma hadn’t been able to take. Lily’s hair had been Amma’s real victory. Everything else? Just a trail of breadcrumbs meant only for Camille. She had done it on purpose.
Like some sick striptease. Camille had shown Amma her scars—this is what life with Momma did to me—and so Amma had shown her her own.
If you let me take what I want, I’ll give you everything. That was what she’d said on that steamy night in Wind Gap, when the wind was carrying the blood-thick smell of the slaughterhouses and they were both high. Amma kept saying the color yellow was popping against her tongue. Camille had almost been able to see that when she’d smiled—like popcorn, she had thought, those pearly white teeth. Amma’s hair had spread out across the frilled pillowcase and she’d looked like some illustration of a princess but from the wrong kind of story-book. A good artist, conscientious and sane, wouldn’t have included the slight pebbling of her nipples that could be seen through her camisole. Wouldn’t have shown the idle way Amma reached between her own legs.
A good person, conscientious and sane, wouldn’t notice those kinds of things. Or would have been able to dismiss them.
But the best Camille had been able to do was pretend to that. “Get some sleep, Amma,” she’d said.
And Amma had lurched up, as smoothly and savagely as a vampire rising from her coffin, and grabbed Camille’s wrist. “If you let me take what I want, I’ll give you everything.” Her breath had been a hot, slightly sour rush against Camille’s face.
So she had known. That was the bargain she had wanted to strike with Lily Burke’s mouth dripping blood.
Let her take what she wanted, let her be ugly and sharp-edged, let her love violence, and in return, Camille would get everything. Everything that had gone on to happen in Chicago.
Everything Amma had carved into her skin.
Everything Amma wanted her to have.
Their first night in Chicago, Amma had gotten into bed with her. Camille had stayed still. She’s a child who wants her mother.
But Amma had just tickled her side and whispered, “I know you’re awake, Camille. People don’t breathe the same way when they’re awake as when they do when they’re sleeping.”
“All right. I’m awake.”
Amma snuggled up to her. “It’s really loud here.”
Camille hadn’t thought about what it would be like to go from the sound of crickets and Adora’s dehumidifiers to the late-night noises of city streets—the catcalls and the rumble of the L. When she’d made that move herself, she’d been so glad to be away from Wind Gap that she’d slept with the windows open. But she’d come north by choice and Amma hadn’t.
“I’ll get you a white noise generator tomorrow,” she said, though what did one of those cost? Twenty dollars, forty dollars? Ear plugs would be cheaper, but Alan would send money. He would write any check that would keep him from thinking about the memo line on it. She ran her hand along Amma’s shoulder, flicking Amma’s hair back and forth between her fingers like it was a poker chip running in and out of her hand. “One of those sleep sounds ones that plays rainfall for you and the sound of the ocean. You have such pretty hair.”
She was trying to give Amma compliments that weren’t tied to suffering or constraint.
Amma was silent, absorbing this. Then she said, “Do you remember that night we slept together back home?”
That wasn’t my home. Camille had to clear her throat before she could say anything. “Yeah.”
“You were all yellow and I could feel you buzzing down my spine and—and I wanted you to touch me. Why wouldn’t you touch me?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ll let you put your hands in my hair, Camille.” Her hand was suddenly on Camille’s thigh, her palm hot against the cotton. “I don’t care about your scars. I want—I want to lick them. You’re so fucking hot and I’m gonna be so pretty for you.”
Why hadn’t she moved Amma’s hand away? She could feel it on her like a brand, like there should have been a palmprint seared into her skin: property of one more Crellin. Nothing ever stopped. There was such an ease to giving into Amma, like this had been her destiny the whole time. Too ugly on the inside for Adora, too ugly on the outside for Richard. Only Amma didn’t care, and that fact was like white noise turned up loud in her head, drowning out everything else.
This will let you sleep.
This is home, right here, and you’ve spent all this time coming to it. Something’s going to be done to you by somebody who loves you.
Amma took her stillness as its own kind of hellbound answer. She pressed her lips against Camille’s. She tasted impossibly floral, like lavender sugar, and Camille understood numbly that Amma had gotten ready for this in her own way. She had known what she was going to do.
She tried to say something, but Amma only screwed her mouth down harder against Camille’s, muffling the sound, catching the cry between her own teeth.
“I just want to put my name on you,” Amma whispered. “Just so you won’t belong to anybody else.”
“Amma, Amma, Amma,” she mocked, suddenly vicious. She had the watery, shaky look she had when she was on the verge of one of her tantrums, when she was about to break something. Camille wanted to be broken. “I don’t have a home anymore or anything. I don’t have parents. Nobody takes care of me, but you’re going to take care of me, you’re going to be my sister, you’re going to love me. Like I love you.”
“I do love you,” Camille said, when she should have been saying no, when she should have been running away, when she should have been doing anything other than telling herself, in some locked-box part of her cut-up heart, that she didn’t really know what Amma was going to do. That all of this was unpredictable and unstoppable, like the weather.
Like a word she had suddenly seen floating on her skin in need of a place and realization.
Amma petted her. Numbly, Camille would guess she hadn’t been with as many girls as she had boys, that she hadn’t even touched herself as often as she had touched the people she wanted to win over; he fingers, thrust down into Camille’s cotton pants and underwear, were clumsy. Her nails were too long, jabbing over and over again into sensitive skin. It didn’t matter.
Just being loved was enough. Just being wanted was enough.
Amma peeled off her clothes. “You’re all shiny in the moonlight. You glow.” She traced one of Camille’s scars with her fingertip. It was one of the fingers she’d had inside Camille and Camille could see the delicate, glossy tear-stain-like track it left on her skin. “Pretty, pretty, pretty. Just one thing and then you’ll come and I’ll come and we’ll both go to sleep.”
It tore up the last of her plausible deniability. She thought, I can’t let this happen and be a good person. I’m not a good person, but I don’t want to be this kind of bad person, please.
“Amma,” she said. Her voice was weak—weak like a conscience, Adora would have said witheringly. “Amma, you have to stop this.”
Amma had her hand in Camille’s bedside drawer. She came up with a nail file the way a man would have come up with a condom: that same look of now-we’re-getting-somewhere satisfaction.
“So sharp,” she said. “You keep this right up close to where you sleep like you want to dream of it. Or is it like a dreamcatcher?”
Like a dreamcatcher.
“You keep your pussy shaved. I like that. I always wanted to do that, but I didn’t want Momma to see, so I had to stay all hairy even though boys like you all baby-doll smooth down there.” She wriggled downwards on the bed and kissed the top of Camille’s mound. “Can you shave over scars? I mean, it doesn’t matter for right there specifically, I know, because the hair won’t grow back there anyway, but I don’t want to throw off your whole routine.” She blew a loosened strand of her own golden hair out of her face. “Doesn’t matter. I’m going to take care of you and I don’t care what you look like, I’m always going to think you’re pretty. My pretty Camille.”
She put the tip of the nail file against Camille’s skin.
I didn’t make it clear, Camille thought, in shock as the hot blood ran down and trickled against her clit, silky as a caress. She doesn’t know I don’t want it. She thinks I’m just pretending.
Does she know I’m just pretending?
No one else had ever cut her before. She felt her cunt throb at it, at someone else wielding the knife that sliced through her skin, someone else making her blood well up, someone else leaving the mark. She remembered the sweat on Adora’s brow, the bareness of her eyelids. Amma looked like that now, but finer, grander. Like Adora had just been a slipshod prototype and here was the real thing.
Amma pressed into her again, finger-fucking her this time, her fingers slippery with Camille’s own blood. She touched herself with her other hand, looking steadily at Camille all the while.
Amma’s lavender mouth and her rose-red hands.
Let me take what I want, and I’ll give you everything.
What had Amma wanted? What had she thought she was giving?
I’ll let you put your hands in my hair.
My pretty Camille.
I just want to put my name on you. So you won’t belong to anybody else.
And there was this question, too: what had Amma thought their understanding had been? When the police had dragged her from the apartment, when one of her shoes had fallen off in the hallway, she had been screaming back at Camille: “I kept my promise! I kept my promise! You lied, you said you’d love me best and you lied!”
Camille hadn’t wanted to love her that way. She hadn’t wanted that climax, like lights flaring up inside her, her sheets covered with blood. She had looked at Amma and seen herself and all that time Amma had been someone else looking back at her, wanting to see herself too.
The words she had left on Camille’s skin, on the now patchy, unevenly-shaven space near her pubic bone: ONLY SISTER. A claim in full defiance of Marian.
Everyone who saw it—and very few people ever did—always assumed she had done it to herself. With scars, no one thought about handwriting. Or angles.
Only Camille, at night in bed, with one hand on those scars and the other a little lower, her eyes squeezed shut against the images that wanted to come into her head. Against the memories. Only Amma, somewhere far away. The ache of ruin was a thread tied between them, whatever anyone else said or did; it was like a fleck of gold in an iris or the shape of an ear, it was what told Camille that they were family.